Archive For: Hymenoptera

The Plot Thickens: This caterpillar ain’t big enough for the two of us

Some of my favorite insects to find while out in the field are hawkmoth caterpillars, or hornworms (named after the characteristic “tail”). They are big, squishy sausages that often show off dazzling colors, sometimes with interesting anti-predator adaptations like eyespots and mimicry. All these characters make the hawkmoth caterpillar look like a toy just waiting for you to play with. The sad truth is that being big and flashy in the natural world often comes with a price. There is danger lurking in every corner. Despite the bright colors and adaptations, birds and lizards do not hesitate to snatch the caterpillars from branches, pathogens and spores of entomophagous fungi scattered everywhere increase the chance for passive infections, and parasitoids are always on the lookout for chunky hosts for their offspring. And the reality is that many of the caterpillars we get to encounter outdoors are already infected with something. I learned this the hard way: as a kid I used to rear a lot of butterflies and moths collected as caterpillars in the field, and many times I was devastated to witness my cute pets being reduced into a sticky mess while wiggly worm-like creatures emerge from their bodies. Sometimes I wonder how lepidopterans manage to keep their populations stable with so many enemies around.

On one of my visits to the beautiful town of Mindo Ecuador, I came across a young hornworm. Despite finding it at daytime, the caterpillar remained calm (many hornworms do their best to disappear from plain sight during the day) so I decided to photograph it.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

After taking a few shots I noticed a black splotch in the photo that I didn’t like, so I decided to change the angle of view. Little did I know this was a wasp that just arrived at the leaf to check out the caterpillar. A few photos later its identity became clear: It was a species of Brachymeria, a tiny wasp that belongs to the large parasitoid family Chalcididae.

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

Chalcidid wasps can be easily recognized by their modified hindlegs that resemble mantids’ raptorial forelegs. The function of these structures is largely unclear. The adult wasps feed on nectar and other liquid foods, and do not use the legs for catching prey. There is a paper describing an interesting behavior in which the females use their legs in fighting over a host’s egg mass. Even more interesting are the last three paragraphs of the paper, with additional examples and hypotheses. It seems like there is no single function for these modified hindlegs and it really depends on the species and its biology. One example really stands out: “The female of Lasiochalcida igiliensis literally jumps into the jaws of antlions and holds the mandibles agape with her hind legs while ovipositing.”

Going back to our little Brachymeria and the hawkmoth caterpillar, at first the wasp just strolled peacefully on the leaf next to the caterpillar, but within a few minutes it hopped, quite literally, on the caterpillar and started walking on it, exploring its body surface while frantically moving its antennae.

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar's proleg and started crawling on its body

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar’s proleg and started crawling on its body

In general, the caterpillar doesn’t enjoy this attention, and often swiftly moves its head backwards in an attempt to drive the parasitoid away. It usually does not work. Once a caterpillar has been spotted and marked by a parasitoid as a host, it will be attacked (here’s a fantastic video showing this behavior, notice that the fly sitting nearby is another parasitoid of hornworms – a tachinid fly!).

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

As I was taking photos of the tiny wasp antennating the caterpillar, from the corner of my eye I noticed a bright yellow object flashing in. A second wasp, a golden Conura species, swooshed into the scene and started harassing the busy Brachymeria wasp.

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

For a short while, the Conura striked from above repeatedly, yet the Brachymeria stood her ground. Eventually the Conura got fed up and attempted to grab onto the other wasp and pull her away from the host. After several tries she succeeded, and the two started swirling in the air, before the Brachymeria returned to her business on top of the caterpillar. The golden wasp did not give up and returned for a second attack and then a third.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp's head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp’s head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

This was very exciting to watch, but to be honest I was waiting eagerly to see if the wasps would use their modified hindlegs during the fight. Unfortunately, I was not able to detect any special maneuvers that involved grabbing with those legs.

Why did this happen? There are several possible explanations. The simplest one is that there is a shortage of caterpillar hosts and the two wasps are competing for the same source of food for their larvae. However, an alternative explanation suggests that the caterpillar has already been infected with a parasitoid before the first wasp found it. Many chalcidid wasps are hyperparasitoids – they do not feed on the big hosts (the caterpillar) directly, but instead attack larvae of other parasitoids already feeding inside the host. In other words they are parasitoids of parasitoids.
Parasitoidception.
Watch this excellent video explaining the complex relationship between several wasp species living on a tobacco hornworm:

This can explain the intense antennation performed by the Brachymeria wasp on the caterpillar for a long period of time. Maybe the wasp was trying to determine if there are parasitoid larvae already present in there. One of the most common sights when it comes to infected hawkmoths is a caterpillar with a cluster of white silk cocoons dangling from its body. Those cocoons belong to braconid wasps, and there is a good chance that the Bracymeria wasp was after their larvae, as some species of in the genus are parasitoids of Braconidae. The golden Conura wasp could then compete for access to those parasitoid larvae or even go after the Brachymeria larvae. It can get pretty complicated with chalcidid wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

So who won in the end? The wasp that was more persistent. At the end of the fight the black Brachymeria wasp was nowhere to be seen, and the golden Conura wasp took over the caterpillar and started antennating it.

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The interesting thing here is that members of genus Conura are usually associated with butterfly and moth’s pupae, yet the wasp here decided to chase off a competitor and take over a caterpillar.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the scene to catch a bus so I could not continue following this interaction. Without further observations, it is difficult to say with certainty what exactly was going on between the two wasps and the hawkmoth caterpillar. Parasitoids are so diverse, and many species have such complex biology. Even though several chalcidid wasp species are being studied closely as potential biological control agents, there are far more species out there about which we simply don’t know enough!

 

The Plot Thickens: Staring into the eyes of a dying Cephalotes

If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people however, ants could not be any less exciting. They are often seen as a generic insect, with a relatively uniform appearance. They always show up when unwanted, find their way into our homes, take refuge in dark and hard to reach corners, and steal our food.
I like ants. I think they are fascinating creatures. But every now and then I find myself talking people into looking beyond “that boring-looking ant”, to try and catch a glimpse of their busy life. It is not always easy to communicate ants to the public (which is why I praise myrmecologists – people who study ants for a living), however I find that it is quite easy in the case of one ant genus in particular: Cephalotes.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Cephalotes is a large genus of arboreal ants found in the neotropics. There are over 130 species, all inhabit tree hollows or utilize cavities in other plant tissues. Looking like they were designed by someone with overflowing imagination, they easily come off as cute. Their flattened head and armored body, often decorated with long sharp spines for protection, their thick legs and perfectly round abdomen, along with their matte color finish, give them the appearance of a plastic toy. In addition, Cephalotes ants move relatively slowly and cannot bite or sting, making them user-friendly. Can you ask for a more perfect ant?

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

They are commonly known as turtle ants, but also got the name gliding ants, thanks to their incredible ability to parachute from high in the canopy and land back on the trunk of their home tree. Their unique body structure and flattened legs allow them to slow down and change their course while falling (some spiders can do the same, by the way). In some species the soldier cast evolved a large head to function as a living door, plugging the entrance to the nest.

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

In regards to interspecific interactions, Cephalotes ants are often seen tending sap-sucking hemipterans such as membracids and small fulgorids to gain access to sugary secretions from those insects. They also act as the model in a mimicry complex, where crab spiders masquerade as the ants in order to sneak up and prey on them.

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Did I mention they are cute? I have written before that you should never become too attached to insects you encounter in the field. And as much as I love the adorable Cephalotes ants, it is important to remember that there are many dangers lurking for them in the forest. During my recent trip in Colombia, I stumbled upon a Cephalotes nest in a tree outside my room. The ants were very active and did not present good photographic opportunities.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

One of them however, stood out among the rest. There was something different about its behavior. This worker moved franticly in what appeared to be an aimless run. It did not follow the other workers, and seemed more interested in reaching a higher spot on the tree. I collected the ant for a closer look, and once I inspected her carefully I believe I found the culprit for her unusual behavior. This ant had a reddish abdomen, as opposed to the black abdomen of her sisters. The red color, coupled with erratic behavior suggests this worker has been infected with a parasite, a nematode worm.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

The parasitic worm lives and breeds inside the body of birds, which spread the worm’s eggs in their droppings. The ants collect nutrients from the bird droppings (along with the eggs) and feed them to their larvae, where the worm matures. In order to complete its life cycle the parasite needs to return into a bird’s body, so it changes the host ant’s appearance to look like a ripe red fruit, and causes it to climb higher on the tree to become more accessible to hungry birds. As much unique character this worker ant might have had, the sad truth is that it was destined to die prematurely. And there was nothing I could do about it. There is a great lesson here – sometimes, the raw essence of nature is difficult to take in. We would like to see it as a peaceful place where all the animals and plants live together in harmony. But the reality is that nature is harsh. It is full of conflict, violence, disease, and death. And we must accept it as an integral part of the world we live in.

Cephalotes ants offer a great opportunity to peek into the life of a small insect and learn about its survival (as well as failure) in various habitats. Before I end this post, there is one thing I would like clarified – going back to their name, why did Cephalotes get the name turtle ant, whereas some leaf beetles were named tortoise beetles? Is there any justification for the turtle designation when it comes to the ants? After all, both insects are terrestrial. If there is an etymologist in the audience, maybe you can help the entomologist?

 

Your personal opinion means nothing to nature

In the past month I have been involved in some pretty interesting conversations surrounding public perception of stinging and biting insects. This is in large part due to a talk I was preparing about medically significant arthropods (more on that in the next post). Some of the civilized discussions ended in surprising way for me, with a few people unfriending or unfollowing me on social media just because they could not understand my point. I am going to try and address the issues I opened by using excerpts from those discussions. I feel like this is going to end up being a ranty post, but I must do it. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comment section – they are most welcome.

Examining a queen European hornet (Vespa crabro) found overwintering under a log.

Examining a queen European hornet (Vespa crabro) found overwintering under a log.

To put it simply, there are two topics I want to open:

1. “Aggressive” arthropods

The first discussion evolved after I shared a conversation I had with a twitter user about a photo of a wasp.
The guy immediately took the stance of “all wasps are aggressive”, and continued to give examples from his own experience of wasps nesting close to his window. I do not want to get into too many details (you can see that conversation in the screen grab), I will just mention that a) the photo showed a male wasp that is incapable of stinging, and b) the nesting wasps do not know they are using this guy’s window. They do not even know what a window is!!!
There seems to be some confusion surrounding the term “aggressive” when describing arthropods, and animals in general. Hippopotamuses are aggressive. Some bears are aggressive. Crows can be aggressive if you injure one of their members. I think you get my point. With arthropods, I am not sure I have a clear cut example of aggressiveness. Maybe “aggressive” is not the right word. Don’t get me wrong, venomous stinging animals are still somewhat dangerous and occasionally do land people in the hospital after being stung. But I ask you, when you call them aggressive, what do you mean exactly? Aggressive to who? Anyone within the range of a nest or just anyone? Do they chase and attack people without provocation? Who took the first step? Sometimes being too close to wasps triggers their defense behavior. But then again, you really have to rub it in their face and disturb them for this alarm response to occur.

Yellowjackets (Vespula germanica) feeding on a fallen pear

Yellowjackets (Vespula germanica) feeding on a fallen pear

For example, I was very close when I took this photo of the yellowjackets. The wasps were active all around me, and NOTHING happened. These wasps were very nice to me. Seriously, I do not understand why they have such a bad reputation. Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. I am not saying anyone else should try to do the same. That would be foolish, especially if you are not familiar with wasp behavior. But I would not call them aggressive. I see wasps and other stinging arthropods as “defensive”. I think the difference between aggression and defense is the presence of provocation. If an animal attacks without provocation, I would classify it as aggression. What is debatable is the definition of provocation. Clearly the meaning of it to us is different from that perceived by social insects. Do not forget that in their world chemical communication takes a substantial part. If the wind blows in their direction, carrying over our scent to the nest, that would be considered a provocation and will trigger a defensive behavior. Things are different if you accidentally hit a wasp nest. Then they will “aggressively” defend their nest.

For many people the sight of a hornet nest in their backyard is terrifying. But in reality these wasps are only interested in making it through the summer months.

For many people the sight of a hornet nest in their backyard is terrifying. But in reality these wasps are only interested in making it through the summer months.

Of course, no one can tell what goes on in a wasp’s mind. They cannot read our minds either. They do not know our intentions just as much as we do not know theirs. There has to be some sort of mutual respect if you want this to end peacefully. Unfortunately, that is something that a lot of people do not have towards nature today. People just see ‘wasp’ and go batshit crazy.

I agree that in some areas where they are invasive, wasps are a problem, particularly in islands. They forage on native fauna, spreading fast and wrecking havoc in their path. But is it aggressiveness? Or is it evidence that they are just very good at what they are supposed to do? It is just foraging and nothing more. Because they thrive in areas with no natural enemies, their food hunts may seem like the wasps are out of control, but they are really just doing their thing to survive and reproduce. Still, they need to be eradicated from these habitats, no doubt.

Going back to the meaning of the word “aggressive”, it shows how difficult it is to communicate without having a clear definition of the word. This is more a discussion about semantics than anything else. Now, I am guilty for being stuck in my own bubble with no idea how things are perceived by others. Each person has their own definition of what being aggressive is, and this is in part related to their personal experience as a human. As noted by a friend of mine, this is largely due to the unprovoked aggressiveness we know from human troublemakers and the unnecessarily violent overreaction that happens when someone thinks they took enough beating and lashes back out. I think the first step is to differentiate the use of the term “aggressive” for describing human behavior and animal behavior. Here is why I stopped using the term frequently when discussing animals:
It crates a negative outlook on nature.
We tend to bring our human-centric approach to nature. “Those animals are trying to hurt me”. “They built a nest on my property”. I understand that it is frustrating to discover a potentially injurious animal in one’s living space, if this had happened to me I would want them removed too. But we must learn to put ourselves out of the picture. Those animals are not there because of us. They are there because the harsh competition in nature is forcing them to do what they can to survive. It just so happens that our living space feels safe for them too, but can you blame them?

2. “Purpose” in the natural world

Perhaps one of the questions I get asked the most, even more often than which camera equipment I use, is what is the purpose of –insert pest species here-:
What is the purpose of flies?
What are mosquitoes good for?
What is the purpose of wasps in nature?

I think these questions stem from a very common human behavior. From an early age we have this innate, almost inexplicable urge to ask “why?” about everything. We are curious to break down how things work around us, and if the world is constructed from tiny pieces, then every piece must have its own purpose assigned to it.
The real question here is who assigns these purposes. Is it man? That would be a very anthropocentric view of life. Conversely, if you believe a purpose is assigned from above by an all-powerful being such as god, then you should not be asking an entomologist these questions. You should ask god. (go and do that right now. It’s OK, we’ll wait. Are you back? Good. Let’s continue) In contrast, if we look at the natural world from an evolutionary perspective, then yes, all the pieces have their rightful place in the big puzzle, otherwise they would not exist.

This is why I believe the questions mentioned above are phrased horribly. Using the word “purpose” suggests that there must also be a benefit to us, humans, to justify the existence of something. That is the wrong way to look at the world. This search for purposes, for meaning in everything, is a characteristic of human nature. Well, what is the purpose of humans then? Why are we here? This is not an easy question to answer when you start thinking about it seriously. Because one person may think humans are on this planet for one purpose, while another person will think of a different purpose for our existence. But let’s not get too philosophical and go back to arthropods and other pests.

What is the purpose of flies/mosquitoes/wasps/ticks/leeches?
To survive.
A better way to look at this would be to ask what role those animals play in nature. To this question there is a concrete answer, because every species has its natural history. The pest insects mentioned above break down organic matter, pollinate, and regulate the populations of other arthropods. I want to take this opportunity to give an example for such an inquiry gone totally wrong, and use it to forward the discussion and paint the bigger picture.

Last week I shared a photo of an African tick, Dermacentor rhinocerinus. The only reason I posted it was because I thought it was beautiful, and I wanted to show that it is possible to appreciate such an animal even though I would not want it to suck my blood.
To be honest, I already got used to getting hate comments and I expected some negative responses to arrive. And arrive they did.
Let’s analyze this conversation together.
In this first part of the conversation, a person leaves a comments that ticks are never beautiful, and that their existence has no justification. This a subjective statement, so I reply in the same manner. Then they go on by saying that ticks serve no purpose in the ecosystem, and that nature would be better off without them. This kind of comments make me cringe. If an organism exists right now as we speak, it means two things: it has a well-based role in nature, and it is extremely good at what it does.
I am copying my reply because I think it is worth reading:

The only thing that ticks do in nature, just like any other animal, is survive. That is the one job they have – to continue the existence of their species. They do so by feeding on blood of other animals. And by doing that (their “role”, if you wish), they dilute and remove the weak individuals from the mammalian population. Now, what is important to understand here, is that ticks do not exist to spread diseases. They are blood feeders. The disease pathogens come from mammals and birds. Ticks have no mutualistic relationships with the bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that they vector. Spreading diseases is more of an artifact of their feeding habits. You want a world without ticks? Fine, but just like you said ecosystems would adapt to their absence, those disease pathogens will continue to thrive in their mammalian hosts, and nature will find a way to get those diseases back into humans.
I’m going to take a risk by saying a world completely free of diseases is a world without life.

The next part is really interesting. After explaining that ticks belong in the natural world no less than other animals (as well as humans), the person who started the conversation goes back to their original stance. Suddenly they remember that they already know and understand everything that has been discussed so far, but they insist that ticks cannot be referred to as beautiful. It is blasphemy. What I find amazing is that this person accused me of having a naïve perspective of biology because I thought a tick was beautiful. This is coming from a person who spent much of his time breeding killifishes, a hobby fish that is praised and prized for its beauty. Oh, the irony.

Conclusion

What these two topics have in common is showing that people tend to bring a lot of their emotions into the conversation when they talk about arthropods they hate. I understand that you do not like insects and arachnids. I also understand that you feel like they are chasing you. However, please trust me when I say there is absolutely no stinging arthropod that is out to get you. They use their stinger for defense only. If you do feel like something is coming after you, please consult a physician or a psychiatrist – you might suffer from delusional parasitosis, entomophobia, or arachnophibia (all totally normal, and treatable by the way!). Also please be aware that there are people out there who find these creatures fascinating and beautiful, even pest insects like mosquitoes. If they can do it, maybe these bugs are not so bad after all? Give them a chance. You may find that the fear and hate you experience are only a manifestation of not knowing enough about these animals. And at the very least, be respectful and compassionate to other people, even if they hold a different opinion than yours.
At the end of the day, your personal opinion means nothing to nature. Nature will continue to function regardless of what you feel. You know what does mean a lot to nature? Your actions.

 

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

It is that time of the year again. Time to reflect on the passing year and look forward to what is coming next. I think a lot of people will agree that 2016 was a challenging year to live through. A lot of disappointing things happened, expectations shattered, and hopes lost. Although for me the year started on a good note, by mid-2016 I found myself fighting deteriorating health and then later suffering through a depression due to a failing relationship. It was one hell of a ride, I was on the brink of mental collapse, and just when I was starting to recover my computer crashed, deleting most of my archives in the process. And I thought 2013 was bad. Little did I know.

But putting all these unfortunate events aside, 2016 was not all bad. Even with my mishaps, there were some parts of my life that needed resetting. Nothing was lost during the computer crash because I meticulously back up my most important stuff (if there is one advice I can give you for the new year, it is to back up your files. Do it RIGHT NOW). In fact, I have so much to be grateful for. I can honestly say that this year I finally feel like I got some recognition. It started with a nice article about Epomis beetles on WIRED, and continued with a few blog posts that became very popular and attracted more followers. After years of avoidance I decided to join Twitter, and even though I am still a novice there I enjoy the interaction with other people. I managed to publish a few scientific papers, including the descriptions of new species. I even gave a filmed interview for BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest Events” which was aired a few days ago. However, what really stood out for me this year is that I got to know a lot of people. Many people, some of whom I have never met, offered their support during my rough days. I was honored to participate in Entomological Society of Ontario’s “Bug Day Ottawa”, where I exposed the public to the wonderful world of whip spiders. I was also fortunate to personally meet up with fascinating people that I have previously known only from their online presence. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone responsible for making my life so much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you. All of you.

 

I bet you want to see some photos. Because what is a photographer’s annual summary without some photos?

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Encountering this species was one of my highlights for the year. I know Macrodontia cervicornis very well from museum insect collections. It is one of the most impressive beetle species in the world, both in size and structure. But I never imagined I would be seeing a live one in the wild! Well let me tell you, it is hard to get over the initial impression. The male beetle that I found was not the biggest specimen, but the way it moved around still made it appear like nothing short of a monster. This species is very defensive, and getting close for the wide angle macro shot was a bit risky. The beetle responds to any approaching object with a swift biting action, and those jaws are powerful enough to cut through thick wooden branches, not to mention fingers!

The most perfectly timed photo

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

I have been observing orchid bees for a few years now. It is one of those rewarding experiences that I recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world. While visiting Costa Rica I was fortunate to snap the above photo, showing four differently colored bees active together at the same spot. A second later the bees started to fight and eventually scattered. The photo drew a lot of attention and became viral, initiating interesting correspondences and new friendships, for which I will be forever thankful.

Best behavior shot

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

I have always wanted a photo showing a Panacanthus cuspidatus in its charismatic threat display. However, this photo is a bit misleading. The spiny devil katydid is actually a very cute and shy animal that prefers to hide rather than attack a huge predator. It took quite a lot of “convincing” to release this behavior.

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

OK, I am going to cheat a little in this category. This photo is not exactly non-animal because it is an animal-made structure. The “silkhenge” structure is a story that gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Initially spotted in Peru by Troy Alexander, and later revealed to the world by entomologists Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz, this is a intricate spider egg sac, along with a protective “fence”. While the photo is ok at best, I was extremely excited to discover this structure in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spider species responsible for this structure is still unknown at this point (although I have my own guess for its ID).

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid's wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid’s wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Another photo that I am very satisfied with is this interesting view of the bright colors hidden on the underside of a leaf-mimicking katydid. It belongs to my “This is not a leaf” series of closeups on katydids’ wings.

The best photo of an elusive subject

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In 2015 I traveled to Mindo, Ecuador in hopes to find a horned fly that Paul Bertner photographed a few years back. I managed to find it, but was unhappy with the results. I returned to the same place this year, hoping to get a better photo. But oh my, these flies are annoyingly skittish. Watch this space for an upcoming post about my experience photographing them.

The best natural phenomenon observed

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

This photo is another highlight for me, because it depicts several interconnected biological interactions. The ants are shown tending a camouflaged treehopper to gain access to sweet honeydew secreted by the sap-sucking insect. The female treehopper is guarding her eggs, hidden in a foamy protective cover in the leaf’s central vein. And finally, there is a red parasitic mite feeding on the treehopper.

The best stacked photo

The focus-stacked image of the antlered caterpillar at the end of this post took hours to produce, and I am very satisfied with the result. However, for this category I decided to choose something a little different.

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

This landscape shot is actually not focus-stacked, but exposure-stacked. I was not carrying a tripod with me during that day but I still wanted to capture the majestic beauty of Albion falls located in Ontario, Canada. Exposure stacking and blending was a completely new technique for me, and I like how the final image turned out. It almost looks like a remote exotic location. I cannot believe this place is just a couple of hours from where I live.

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

“Arghhh! I have pollen in my eye!” Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

I really tried to push myself to the limits this year with wide angle macrophotography. Most of my attempts were of capturing pollinating insects in action, but I also tested my capabilities in other scenarios. For example, the following photo was taken using the simplest setup I have – a cheap, unmodified pancake lens and the camera’s built-in popup flash:

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

I also worked on perfecting results from more frequently-used setups:

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best of the year

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

The above photo of a Costa Rican glass frog is probably my personal favorite from 2016. If you critically evaluate your photography work on a regular basis, it is not very often that you find yourself looking at a photograph without being able to find anything wrong with it. In the case of this photo, everything is just the way I wanted it to be. Perfect.

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This photo would probably not be in my “best of 2016” if it weren’t for the huge positive response from other people. This is a katydid species I have encountered many times in Ecuador, yet I could not believe my eyes when I saw how brightly colored this individual was. I posted the photo on social media and it caught on like wildfire and went viral. Some people even accused me of altering the natural colors of the katydid in photoshop. And I wonder, what a time to be alive. You travel to a remote place to bring back a piece of beautiful nature to share with others, and no one believes it is real. It makes me sad.

So yes, 2016 was not easy, then again it is just a number that does not mean anything. 2017 will most likely be just as challenging. We survived last year’s events, let’s see what comes next. Bring it on!

One more thing…

To properly welcome the new year, I am offering a product for the first time. It is a calendar containing selected photographs of one of my favorite groups of insects, the orthopterans. If you do not have a 2017 calendar yet, or if you already got one but would still like to have nice photos of katydids and grasshoppers on your wall to look at, please consider ordering one. The candy-colored katydid is featured there too!

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

USA holidays calendar :
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-usa-holidays/calendar/product-22988977.html

Canadian holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-canada-holidays/calendar/product-22990362.html

Israeli/Jewish holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-israeli-holidays/calendar/product-22989647.html

 

Ornidia – an orchid bee mimic

In my previous post I mentioned that one of the most common questions I got was whether orchid bees are some sort of fly. Indeed there are many flies that have metallic colors, but the resemblance usually stops there. The best example are bottle flies, members of family Calliphoridae, which occupy a niche different from that of orchid bees and do not share any similar behaviors with them. It does not mean, however, that Euglossinae-mimicking flies do not exist. In the tropics, some hoverflies (family Syrphidae) have evolved to look like orchid bees. Several species of the genus Copestylum resemble Euglossa species and they are often found foraging near active orchid bees. Even more interesting is Genus Ornidia, which bears a strong visual resemblance to some Euglossa species, and even copies some of the bees behavior.

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The genus Ornidia contains five species, all have shiny metallic colors and body structure that resemble those of orchid bees. Their legs in particular are thick and robust to look more like bee-legs than the typical skinny legs of hoverflies. Ornidia are distributed mainly in the tropical regions of Latin America, however one species, Ornidia obesa, reaches the southern United States and has also spread into the Afrotropical, Oriental regions and Oceania, probably due to human activity. Ornidia flies are quite common and they are frequently found close to human habitations.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

These beautiful flies can be observed safely even from a close distance. They are not very skittish, and usually when disturbed they quickly take off, hover in the area for a few seconds, and return to the same perch. It is especially rewarding to watch them warming up during the morning hours, when they hover in a single spot for a while, trying to catch some sun rays penetrating through the canopy. The loud buzzing sound produced by their wings during flight is very similar to that of Euglossa species. During flight, the fly also displays a behavior that appears to mimic orchid bee behavior: it crosses its legs several times, similarly to a male Euglossa transferring fragrant compounds to the hind tibiae, or alternatively to a female Euglossa transferring resin to the hind legs.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa's clypeus quite faithfully.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa’s clypeus quite faithfully.

The adult flies feed mainly on liquid food such as nectar and animal feces, but can also take small-sized particles like pollen and fragments of decomposing organic matter. Ornidia larvae are generalist feeders and seem to exploit various food sources to complete their development. Firstly, they can be found in rotting fruits, leaf litter and compost piles. Several interesting papers report the larvae to feed even on vertebrate corpses, suggesting the potential use of these maggots for forensic work. Lastly, Ornidia larvae were also found to cause intestinal myiasis in humans, after being ingested with infested food. Nevertheless, these flies pose no threat to us; Myiasis caused by Ornidia larvae is rare relatively to other fly species, the flies have plenty of abundant food in their habitat and there are no records of Ornidia flies completing their development inside a human host.

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

How would a fly benefit from looking like an orchid bee? As I mentioned in my post about Euglossinae, these bees are not very aggressive due to their solitary lifestyle. However, the flies may still benefit from this mimicry because the bees are dominant in the rainforest habitat. The female orchid bees have a stinger and can deliver a painful sting, this alone can deter a predator. In addition, the highly territorial male orchid bees are usually left alone by other flying insects. The mimicking flies take advantage of the fact that orchid bees are common and recognized by other animals, including predators.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees

Whenever I visit Latin America I make sure to leave some time for observing orchid bees in activity. This means my morning routine is usually very brief: a quick breakfast, some reorganization of gear from the previous night hike, and heading out. The bees are usually active between 7:30-11am, so it is a race against the clock to locate them in the rainforest.

A month ago I posted a photo on my social media accounts showing a group of Euglossa bees collecting fungus threads from tree bark in Costa Rica. Since then, this photo has become very popular and has been shared and retweeted thousands of times (unfortunately, a big chunk of these shares is by people who uploaded the photo to their pages without my permission). This is currently my most shared photo to date. Even as of writing this post, one month after posting the photo, it still generates new likes, shares, and comments. In fact, the title of this post, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees”, is taken directly from the comments, as some people noted the photo reminded them of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark, Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark, Limón Province, Costa Rica

While I will argue that in order to truly appreciate the beauty of orchid bees one must observe them from a close distance, this photo does represent well their diversity (showing three distinct Euglossa species) and variation (the “red” and “orange” bees belong to the same species). Soon after the photo spread through the internet I was flooded with questions about orchid bees, so I thought it would make a nice opportunity to write a post about them and address some of the inquiries.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

Are you sure these are not flies? Despite bearing a strong resemblance to bottle flies, these insects are indeed bees: orchid bees are members of tribe Euglossini which contains five genera: Euglossa, Eulaema, Eufriesea, Exaerete and Aglae. They are somewhat closely related to the eusocial honey bees and bumblebees, however most orchid bees lead a solitary lifestyle. The genera Exaerete and Aglae are cleptoparasites, developing in the nests of other orchid bees. There are about 200 species of orchid bees, distributed only in the Americas, mostly in Central and South America. Only one species occurs in the United States. Like many other bees, orchid bees collect nectar, pollen and resin from plants. They can be distinguished from other bees by their shiny metallic coloration and their extremely long tongues, which can be twice the length of the body. Most of the time the tongue is folded underneath the body and extends behind the abdomen.

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Are they dangerous? Can they sting? Orchid bees are far less dangerous than honey bees. Being solitary (excluding a few species that are communal), orchid bees have no colony or a queen to defend. That being said, female orchid bees do possess a stinger, which they will not hesitate to use when threatened. Interestingly, the females are very rarely encountered. I have encountered them only near stream banks, collecting clay mud for construction of their nest. Most of the bees observed in the rainforest are males. Although their folded tongue sticking behind the abdomen may look like a stinger, males have no stinger and pose no danger to anyone.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tonguefolded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tonguefolded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Why are they called orchid bees? Male orchid bees exhibit an interesting and unique behavior – fragrance collection. They collect and store different volatile compounds, some of which are found in orchid flowers. To get the right mixture of chemicals, they sometimes travel long distances in flight. Being able to detect the tiniest amount of a desired compound in the air, the bees home-in on the scent column and navigate to it with impressive accuracy. Once landed at the site, the males scrape the odorous compounds using modified brushes on their forelegs, and then while in mid-air transfer and press them into special storage chambers in their hind legs. The process is repeated until the bee has collected enough of the chemical. The purpose of collecting the fragrant compounds is not entirely clear, but it is strongly believed that they play an important role in mate choice by the females, just as perfume is used to attract a mate in humans.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

To collect a variety of scents, the bees visit primarily orchids flowers, but also other flowers, tree wounds, fungi and even corpses. One species was even recorded collecting the insecticide DDT without suffering any damage from the chemical.
The fragrance collection behavior allows the attraction of males using different baits containing essential oils, and can be useful for biologists to learn about their seasonal abundance and diversity.

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

Some fragrant orchids have evolved different adaptations to take advantage of this perfume-seeking behavior, which involve the male bees pushing or crawling into the flowers, triggering a mechanism that glues a pair of pollen packets (called pollinia or pollinaria, depending on the type of plant tissue involved) on the bee’s head or thorax. These pollen packets will travel with the male bee to the next flower to complete the pollination process.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee's back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee’s back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Why are orchid bees so colorful? This question is a hard one to answer. The metallic color does not seem to have a clear function. However, it is important to note that not all orchid bees are colorful. While members of genera Euglossa, Exaerete and Aglae are flashy with colors ranging from gold, red and green to blue and violet, members of Eulaema and Eufriesea are less showy and sport dark colors and a thick coat of hairs, which make them look like fuzzy bumblebees.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Orchid bees are fascinating insects that can be observed safely without the need for special equipment or prior preparation. I would like to share with you something I like to do when I find a group of male bees in activity: I approach slowly and place my head close to their gathering spot. The bees are so busy closing in on the scent cone that they are not bothered by my presence. Then I close my eyes. The loud buzzing sounds piercing through the air make me feel like I am standing right in the middle of an insectopian highway. It is quite a unique sensation. Try it. You won’t regret.

My take on wide-angle macro – part 4

In case you have not read my previous posts about wide-angle macro, make sure to head over to these pages first. While this post focuses on my relay lens system, the previous posts give a good introduction to wide-angle macro:
To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.

It is that time of the year again, in which various “year-in-review” posts start appearing. My intention was to follow what I did in 2013 and 2014, and present my list of 2015 photographic highlights. However, for me 2015 lagged a little photography-wise, and judging by the scarcity of similar annual summary posts from fellow photographers it sure feels like I am not the only one in this. What I can say though, is that I spent a lot of time testing different combinations of my equipment. After publishing my series of wide-angle macro posts I saw them as finished and had no plans to continue. But a recent development convinced me otherwise and I am proud to present part 4 in the series, alternatively titled – You should never stop experimenting with gear.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my "awkward device" out.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my “awkward device” out.

In the previous post I mentioned that one can achieve a satisfying wide-angle macro effect using a relay lens system. It is probably the cheapest way to go about it too, as the different parts can be obtained in garage sales and thrift stores. However, using a relay lens has its own drawbacks, for example stepping into full manual gear territory, extreme chromatic aberration and soft focus. This is not, by all means, the end of the world, and after a period of trial and error using my relay system I managed to get some interesting results with a very unique perspective. I was happy with those photographs, for a while.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera's sensor.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera’s sensor.

But after some time I grew tired of the cumbersome system I built. Each photo took me over 10 minutes to plan and execute, rendering most animal subjects uncooperative. I was frustrated with the lack of auto aperture control. And most annoying – my relay lens system was very long, with a tiny front element. This means that it did not let too much light enter the camera, resulting in a dark, upside down image in the viewfinder. In addition, the photos I got using this system all had soft focus and a strange halo around the subject, and I suspect this was a result of chromatic aberration, diffraction and the way I was lighting the scene.

It was back to the drawing board for me. I started to think what kind of look I wanted for these wide-angle macro shots, and then I remembered that some years ago people experimented with attaching a peephole lens to a point and shoot camera to get a fisheye effect. Incidentally, some of these combinations had wide-angle macro capabilities. Once I had an idea of what I wanted, I verified that it was indeed plausible, and went hunting for the suitable parts. The problem with peephole lenses is that they vary in image quality, and also some lens combinations “play well” together while others result in a photographic catastrophe. It took me over a year to come up with the right combination of optics to get the desired look I was after, but I think I got it now (at least until I find something that works better).

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

This current relay system is shorter, lighter and has auto focus and aperture control. The results are much sharper and there is no loss of detail. Almost perfect. Wait, almost?? Yes, although this lens combination perform better than others, the final result also depends on the camera settings, subject magnification and lighting conditions. One thing that is hard to avoid when using this system is sunstars. With a front element allowing a 180° field of view, the sun almost always ends up in the frame. Some people love sunstars, but I must admit that this effect gets old quickly when you see it in each and every photo.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

What I really like about this system is that it is perfect for photographing pollinators. The front element is still quite small, and perceived as non-threatening by skittish insects.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times - a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times – a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Another aspect of this system is that it allows to experiment with more dynamic shots, producing a very unique style. It will be interesting to test this with different moving subjects in the future.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Finally, I can now create portraits of small critters while still retaining much of the surrounding background.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Thank you for following these posts about my evolving wide-angle macro style. I hope they serve as inspiration for creating your own setup. Here’s to a new year full of photographic adventures!

Nailing that Megarhyssa shot – it’s all about flexibility

It is intriguing that I do not post much about North American insects. In fact, ever since I moved to Canada I became more and more obsessed with animals found in my home country (Israel). Some might say this is a common case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, but this does not mean that North American insects are not exciting or interesting. On the contrary, there are many insect species I hope to see in person. One of these insects rewarded us with its presence during a day trip to Hilton Falls Conservation Area in Ontario. I thought I should write about it and share a little bit of the process of photographing it.

Giant ichneumon wasps (genus Megarhyssa) are some of the biggest North American wasps thanks to the females’ long (10cm) ovipositor, which is longer than the wasp’s own body. These wasps might look fierce but they are actually shy and harmless insects. They are parasitoids: their larvae develop as parasites living inside the body of other insects. The female’s ovipositor is therefore not a stinger, but an organ used to inject eggs into the larva’s host.

During our trip we came across an egg-laying female of Megarhyssa macrurus. I only had a couple of small lenses with me and no dedicated macro equipment, but still, I did not want to miss an opportunity to photograph a Megarhyssa during oviposition. I tried to go for a simple wide-angle macro style first:

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Very quickly I ran across one of the problems I mentioned in this post. The wasp is so thin and delicate and easily gets “lost” in the background, even when it is slightly out-of-focus. To get a better result, I started to cut broad leaves and placed them like tiles in the background. This photo was taken with the same, non-macro lens as above. Surprising result!

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Megarhyssa wasps attack the larvae of another wasp, Pigeon horntail (Tremex columba), which bore into dead wood. The female can detect tiny vibrations coming from inside the wood by the feeding horntail larvae. She then proceeds to egg-laying: she bends her abdomen, exposing her ovipositor from its flexible sheath, and starts drilling. When she reaches a horntail larva, she sends an egg all the way down the ovipositor and injects it to the host. The parasitoid wasp larva feeds on the host and kills it, and then pupates inside the wood. The new generation of Megarhyssa wasps will emerge as adults in the following summer.

Back to the process of photographing – The next thing I wanted was to test the flexibility of the lens (I always recommend doing this), so I took a few more “creative” shots at different angles. What I like about this photo is that you can also see some of the previous holes this female drilled using her ovipositor.

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

The last goal was to get a dreamy background, showing some of the light entering through the canopy. This was a bit tricky, because the wasp was facing down towards the ground. Since I do not have special equipment (such as an angle-viewfinder or a tilt-screen), I had to be creative and improvise. Unknowingly, I had my photo taken while trying to compose the shot. I was completely unaware of my pose because I was too focused on photographing, and I guess some of the poses I tried might have been embarrassing for my trip partners… To tell the truth, I had no idea my body was even capable of getting into these positions. If you look closely, you can even see the wasp in this photo, it is very big!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects! Photo by Mio Konfedrat.

After much bending and neck-twisting I managed to get the shot that I wanted:

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Nice to cross this incredible species off my “wanted” list.

2014 in review: traveling, wide-angle macro and great finds!

As the clock counting towards the end of 2014, it is time for another year-in-review post. This was a good year. What a refreshing change from 2013. The main element this year seems to be traveling – I did lots of it. I think I broke my own record for traveling by air, sometimes squeezing multiple destinations into the same month, all thanks to the leave of absence I took from the university. It does not necessarily mean I visited new places; there is still a ton I want to see. The surprising thing is that I do not feel like I photographed enough this year. Many of these trips relied heavily on research, and very occasionally I found myself in a conflict between collecting data and photographing.

Here are my best of 2014. I tried to keep the same categories as last year.

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

Well, botfly again in this category, just like last year. I actually had a human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) in my own body last year as well as this year (there is a scientific publication about it on the way – a topic for a future blog post!). Although I have to say this year’s cute parasite was not at all unpleasant, on the contrary! For this reason I decided to go all the way through and have it complete its larval development inside my body, and now I am eagerly waiting for it to emerge as an adult fly.

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

I’m afraid I did not take too many landscape photographs this year. I was more concentrated in other methods (see below) that I completely neglected this photography sytle. In fact, I have just sold my trustworthy Tokina AT-X Pro 17mm lens, because I found that I am not using it anymore. I did have a chance to visit some breathtaking places this year, and chose two shots from Belize as my favorite landscapes for 2014.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

This photo is not exactly “perfectly timed” in the sense that I had to wait in order to capture the right moment. As I was walking to my cabin in the Ecuadorian Amazon I saw this pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) resting on a wall that was painted to show a scene from the rainforest. To my amazement the spider picked the “correct” spot in the painting to rest on, a palm leaf, just as it would be in the real vegetation. The cutesy ants painted marching nearby add a nice twist to this photo.

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

This molting amblypygid (Euphrynichus bacillifer) takes this category. I like how it looks like a version of Alien’s Facehugger from this angle.

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

I regard this as one of my best super-macro shots. I have already written a short post about how this unique inflorescence sent me 20 years back in time for a trip down memory lane. What I love about this photo is that I managed to produce exactly what I envisioned.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in "threat posture". Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in “threat posture”. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

You can read more about my scary encounter with the huge Phoneutria spider here. I admit that my hands were shaking as I was getting closer and closer to take a photo. These spiders are fast. And usually quite aggressive too. In the end this female turned out to be very docile, and she also kindly warned me when I was getting too close.

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

Never in my wildest dreams I imagined I would be photographing a coral snake from a close distance, not to mention doing it alone with no assistance. These snakes have extremely potent venom and should be left alone when encountered. However, in my case an opportunity presented itself and I could not pass on the chance to photograph this beautiful creature. It was carefully released back to the rainforest immediately after the shoot.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

There is almost nothing I can say about Sabethes that I haven’t already said in this post. This mosquito is nothing short of amazing, and for some insect photographers it is a distant dream to photograph one in action. Too bad they are tiny, super-fast, and oh yes – transmit tropical diseases that can kill you. So I guess it fits the previous category as well.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

 

I have seen army ants in the past but this year I was happy to walk upon a bivouac (a temporary camp in which they spend the night). It is such an impressive sight. It is also quite painful if you are standing a bit too close. Taking close ups of the bivouac’s “ant wall” was an unpleasant process, to say the least.
I also love this scene where a small roach watches by while the ants form their crawling “rivers”.

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

 

I rarely take deep focus stacks. The reason is that I like to photograph live animals and this method requires an almost perfectly still subject. This stack of nine images shows one of the most impressive jumping spiders I had the fortune of finding. You can tell I went all “Thomas Shahan-y” here.

 

The best wide-angle macro

If there is one style I was obsessive about this year, it is wide-angle macro. I decided to dive in, and experimented with different setups and compositions. I have now gathered enough experience and information to write a long post (most likely split in two) about this method. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my favorites from this year.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

The next photo comes with its own story: On the way to the 700-Feet Waterfalls in Belize for an Epiphytes survey, Ella Baron (manager of Caves Branch Botanical Gardens), Alex Wild and I joked that it would be cool to take a wide-angle macro shot of a frog against the background of the waterfalls, and to use this “postcard shot” to promote future BugShot Belize workshops. 15 minutes after that, I had the shot on my memory card… This is probably my favorite photo from 2014.

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at the beautiful 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

Along with wide-angle macro photography, I also photographed intensively against a white background, as a contributor for Meet Your Neighbours project. This technique is easy and produces stunning results that it is difficult to choose favorites. I think I like best the photos that still incorporate some part of the habitat, such as the ones below.

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Memes

Shooting for Meet Your Neighbours not only gives a chance to appreciate organisms out of the context of their surroundings, but also makes it super easy to use the images in creative ways. I do not consider myself a competent meme creator, but there are times that I have no better way for expressing myself.

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

Ah, where to start? There were so many great finds this year: timber flies, fringed tree frogs, velvet worms, freshly molted whip spiders, eyelid geckos, tadpole shrimps and more. I cannot simply pick one favorite subject. They were all my favorites, so I decided not to end this post with a trail of random photos. I cannot wait to see what I will encounter next year. Have a good 2015!

2013 in review: Good riddance!

In response to Alex Wild’s call in Scientific American, here is my list of “2013 photographic achievements”.

I thought about how I should start this. I want to say that 2013 was a crazy year. But if you read many of these “year-in-review” posts you will soon find out that they are very repetitive, usually starting with “this was a _______ year for me” (insert your favorite adjective: crazy, busy, intensive, productive). I would like to try something a bit different:

2013 was the worst year I have had. Ever. Here is a partial list of my mishaps – got a warning from my university department for trespassing overseas, got my face broken while doing research and went through a reconstruction surgery, had my luggage searched extensively by airport customs officials on my way out of NZ, got a warning for having 300ml 70% ethanol for research in my one of my bags prior to flight, was mistakenly charged the $1000 excess fee upon returning a rented vehicle (twice!) and got my credit card locked, had my PhD research terminated and lost my main source of income, dealt with overseas bureaucracy, broke my main flash unit a few days before a photography workshop, got the return flight cancelled a day before I left the country for the workshop, served as a host for six internal parasites, and the list goes on. I saved you from the gross bits.

So you can understand why I am eager to wave this year bye bye. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good things happened too – I met new interesting people, I learned and experienced new things and I finally attended BugShot macrophotography workshop in Belize – an event that will surely remain as a good memory for years to come.

And now without further due, here are my best-of-2013:

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

This is definitely not one of my best photos. I do not like the light, the composition could be a lot better, and I could have improved the focus. However, it is an important behavior shot.
This photo was taken during my PhD research trip in New Zealand, in which I was recording the mating behavior of ground weta. The male, under the female, has finished depositing the sperm ampulae on the female’s genitalia (white blobs) and is preparing for depositing a nutritious nuptial gift close to her secondary copulatory organ. Unfortunately, this series of photos caused a dispute regarding image use and copyright and had cost me great pain. [Stay tuned for “My NZ ordeal (part 2)”]

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

I have always been interested in the fuzzy botflies and their biology as internal parasites of mammals, and I have been waiting for an opportunity to photograph a larva. This year, I got my chance when a former student collected one from a rabbit. I think this creature is amazing, but I could not bring myself to accept that this larva was burrowing into the flesh of a live rabbit just a few days earlier. Little did I know that I would become a host of several such larvae just a couple of months later…

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

This photo was a real game changer for me. My photography has changed substantially through experimentation during the trip to New Zealand. I decided to make a quick rest stop from a long drive at the waterfalls, and took only my camera and a fisheye lens with me. This is ended up being one of the best photos I have ever taken. Not only it is completely hand-held with no help of filters, I also managed to squeeze in a sun-star in between the top trees. After this I realized how much I know about photography and that I am already at a good level (before this I always thought I was not good enough).

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

Slope Point is known as the southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. Because of its close proximity to the South Pole, extremely intense and uninterrupted winds from Antarctica blow and smash into the trees here, severely disturbing their growth and forcing them into twisted shapes.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

The break of dawn over Allan's Beach. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

The break of dawn over Allan’s Beach, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

I did not plan taking any photos that morning – it was pretty rainy with a thick overcast. I was walking a friends’ dog up a hill when I suddenly saw the sunrays breaking through the clouds. I ran back to the house and grabbed my camera. The only lens that was effective to record the scene was my Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, so I panned and took 42 shots and stitched them together later to get a high quality super-image.

 

Best behavior shot

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

 

One of my main goals in documenting ants’ mutualistic relationships was to photograph an ant collecting a drop of honeydew from a tended homopteran (aphid, scale insect, plant hopper etc’). I have tried to do it many times, but was too slow to “catch” the drop. You can imagine my enthusiasm when an opportunity to photograph a tending wasp presented itself!

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

I hate to admit it, but I am biased about my photo subjects. When photographing, most times I will prefer a small animal subject to a plant or scenery. I lost many good photographic opportunities in the past this way. But every once in a while I come across something so different, so unique, that it blows my mind. This species of filmy fern from New Zealand is such a plant.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

This male scorpion was so tame while being photographed that it was tempting to try and handle it. Only afterwards I found out that this species possesses quite a potent venom, and is even responsible for several death cases in Central America.

 

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

 

One of my “most wanted” for 2013, and I almost gave up after looking for it unsuccessfully for several nights during my visit in Israel. Luckily, just when I was about to leave the dunes, I found this beautiful male snake a few steps away from my car. It did a defensive display upon noticing me but later calmed down and stayed still, allowing me to frame a nice close-up portrait.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

This photo could be a deserving candidate for “the photo that got me into the most trouble” category, however the troubles found me not as a result of taking the photo, but more because I was hiking in the geckos’ highly protected habitat looking for them. All in all, I am very glad I got a chance to see these gorgeous reptiles, and hope they live long and prosper.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

 

There were two recent outbreaks of desert locusts in Israel (originating in Africa): in November 2004, and March 2013. Unfortunately for me, I missed both. However, two months after the swarms were exterminated billions of locust eggs started hatching and feeding on any green plant, causing damage to several crops in their way. I was extremely lucky to be in Israel during this time, and I managed to photograph and record the juvenile locusts before the order to exterminate them took effect.

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

I have been manually stacking images for some time now to get deeper depth of field in macro photographs, but had mixed results. This trapdoor spider came out very nice, revealing good detail in hairs and claws.

 

The best wide-angle macro

I had my eyes on this technique since 2005, but I never got myself to actually try it. Inspired by Piotr Naskrecki’s books and blog I decided to look more into it:

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

 

One of my first attempts to shoot wide-angle macro using a fisheye lens and a fill-flash. Now I know I was doing it “wrong” (or differently from my inspiration), but even so, the photo came out quite nice and received a lot of attention. The only things I wish the photo would also deliver are the strong wind and the loud cicadas singing in the background.

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

This is one of Israel’s largest katydid species (only Saga ephippigera is bigger). I always wanted to have a wide-angle macro shot of Saga, showing its large head and spines. However, in the end I decided not to move too close to the katydid, giving the impression that it is about to step out of the photo.

 

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

 

This photo would not have been possible without the help of Joseph Moisan-De Serres who gave me informative advice about orchid bees, and Piotr Naskrecki, who encouraged me to attempt a wide-angle shot of them. It took a lot of time and patience to get the “right” shot; I suspect this was also the time when I got infected with the human botfly.

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

To me, there is nothing more fun and rewarding than discovering something new. This is one of three potential new species of whipspider (genus Charinus), found in Israel this year and currently being described. Whipspiders (Amblypygi) have become one of my favorite groups of arthropods in the last years and I hope to learn more about them!

So in conclusion, out of these, which is my most favorite best photo of 2013?
The answer is none.

There is another photo that I like better than all of these, one in which I experimented in a technique I know absolutely nothing about and got a lovely result. However, I will leave that photo for my summary of BugShot Belize, which hopefully will be posted before the next BugShot event!